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Shiur #12: Redemption

  • Rav Ezra Bick



This shiur is dedicated by Mr and Mrs Alan Kravitz on behalf of Elie Kravitz




Look upon our affliction, and fight in our cause,

and redeem us quickly for the sake of Your name;

For You are a mighty redeemer.

Blessed are You, the redeemer of Israel.


            The question I would like to understand: What exactly is redemption, and how is it different from the specific things for which we ask in all the other berakhot? Is not food when we are hungry redemption? Does not forgiveness redeem us from sin, the ingathering of the exiles from dispersion, justice from oppression? What do we want in this berakha?


A. Look Upon Our Affliction


            If we examine the berakha, we are first of all struck by the opening. Why does God have to "look upon our affliction" before He gets down to what we really want - to redeem us quickly? Why do we not ask Him to see our poverty before sending us prosperity or our ignorance before sending us knowledge. Only here do we preface the solution to the problem with a request that God study the problem first. Why?


            The answer, I think, is that "geula" - redemption - is not synonymous with the word "solution." The solution for every problem cannot be called "geula." For instance, if I need food, and I pray that God give us a prosperous year, I am not requesting redemption. Geula refers to a situation where Man is "over his head," where he is trapped by forces beyond his control. Redemption is where one is saved after having been lost. Geula plucks you from the jaws of defeat after all human hope has disappeared. The legal term "geula" is used in the Torah for the redemption of a slave, or one's portion of the land after it has been sold. The object is out of your control, in the hands of the buyer, but you bring it back to where it should be. The slave cannot free himself - someone has to come from outside to redeem him. That is the feeling, the NEED, that underlies the prayer for geula - that I am lost, overwhelmed, on the verge of defeat, and I need the strong arm of God to save me.


            The archtypical geula of Judaism is the exodus. The Sages went to considerable trouble to emphasize that there was no natural way for the Jews to escape Egypt, and this is their understanding of the central theme of the miracle, sign, and wonder associated with the ten plagues. The acme of the geula from Egypt was the parting of the Sea of Reeds - the Jews are trapped between the Egyptians and the sea, with no route of possible escape. That is when God's hand becomes apparent, and we have geula. This is expressed simply in the berakha of geula recited after the shema of the evening prayer: "For God has rescued Yaakov and redeemed him from a hand MIGHTIER THAN HIM."


            This is the meaning of "Look upon our affliction." Geula comes about only after the condition of "affliction" exists. The Hebrew word "onyeinu" means inner affliction and distress. We need geula not just because there is a problem, but because we are on the verge of despair, were it not for our faith in the redemptive power of God. "Look upon our affliction" does not refer to God obtaining knowledge of the situation in which we find ourselves, but rather to His perceiving the distress we are suffering, the futility we face, from which springs our need to turn to Him.


Indeed, the geula of Egypt begins with this very expression: "And God looked upon the Children of Israel, and GOD KNEW" (Ex. 2,25).  "Va-yeida Elokim" - God knew - means He understood, He absorbed the inner knowledge of the Jews' predicament.


            So the prayer for geula is first of all a recognition of the hopelessness of the human condition without God, an admission that we desperately need God. The request for redemption arises from our own understanding of our "affliction," and therefore we turn to God to see it as well, so that He can save us from it.


B. Atonement


            I pointed out in the last berakha, which dealt with forgiveness, that the concept of atonement - kappara - was absent. I believe that is because the Sages wanted it to be included in this berakha, the request for redemption. Forgiveness and pardon refer to God's attitude towards us, as I pointed out in the previous shiur, and save us from punishment. Kappara, on the other hand, refers to the state of our souls, and saves us from contamination and corruption. Redemption, based on God 's seeing our affliction, the inner state of our souls, applies to sin no less than to external troubles. Man requires redemption from sin, and this is what we call kappara.


C. Empathy


            Taking this a bit further, if the term "affliction" refers to our inner state, then the "looking" that God is called upon to do is not merely seeing, but understanding, compassion (in the original sense of the word: "com" means "with," "passion" means "feeling"), and empathy. We are not asking only for a piece of bread, or a job, but first and foremost that God solve our inner distress, and this will mean that we will feel His presence within ourselves. This itself is an expression of kappara, for God, in the words of R. Akiva, "is the mikva of Israel."


            This explains two elements in the continuation of the berakha. Immediately after "looking upon our affliction," God is called upon to "fight in our cause," to fight our fight. In other words, if God actually feels our distress, with a shared empathy, He will naturally identify with our cause, champion our side. The berakha does not so much ask God to destroy our oppressors as it requests that He simply be with us, "on our side;" that He come and be with us and identify with our plight. "And God looked upon the Children of Israel, and GOD KNEW."  "Va-yeida Elokim" means much more than knowledge, it means communion and cleaving (deveikut). We are not asking God to send relief from afar, but to join us (which of course will both relieve the inner distress and presumably eliminate the external cause of the distress).


            Secondly, we ask God to redeem us "for the sake of Your name." What is the connection between God's name and helping us? The answer is obvious and well-known - God's name is borne by Israel. In other words, God identifies with our plight because, in some sense, His presence (or holiness, for those who remember the shiur on the berakha of kedusha) in this world is identical with Jewish existence. This is not only based, as is often understood, on a pragmatic appeal to God to prevent Jewish disaster in order to avoid a "chillul Hashem" based on the fact that the nations will associate Jewish defeat with the defeat of God. The chillul Hashem, desecration of God's name, is not based merely on the mistaken misconception of the nations. Even if they will correctly conclude that Jewish misfortune is not due to divine impotence, but to divine anger and punishment, the very fact of Jewish disaster is a diminution in God's name, because Jewish existence is, in a real and not only apparent manner, the bearer of God's name. We appeal to God to identify with His name that we bear, to agree to be with those who sanctify His name ("yached shimkha al makdishei shimekha"), and this is the inner kernel of the redemption we seek.


D. A Mighty Redeemer


            The language of this berakha, in my opinion, is based on a verse in Jeremiah 50,34, which is part of the prophecy on Babylonia, the exiler of Israel:


Thus says Hashem of Hosts: The children of Israel and the children of Yehuda are oppressed together; and their captors hold them fast and refuse to let them go.


Their Redeemer is mighty, Hashem of Hosts is His name;

He shall thoroughly fight their cause ("riv yariv et rivam"),

that He may quiet the land and upset the inhabitants of Babylonia.

(Jer. 50,33-4)


            This source supports what I have been proposing. Redemption refers to a hopeless, futile situation ("their captors hold them fast"). Redemption results from God's name being associated with Israel (the God of Hosts, where Israel is the host of God), and therefore God not only quiets the land and upsets Babylon, but first of all he "fights their cause."


            We also find here a further aspect of our berakha - "For You are a mighty redeemer." Strength, as an attribute of God, is associated only with geula. This, of course, reflects OUR perspective, rather than God’s. Since we are trapped by the captors of Babylon, chained by hopeless despair, it takes the overwhelming might of God to save us. We experience redemption as a revelation of overwhelming might. In the words of the Torah, "God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm." The redemption of God is experienced as power, and this is no less true when speaking of the inner redemption from affliction as from the external redemption from an enemy. To be redeemed is to behold the "mighty hand and outstretched arm" of God.


            This explains the insistence of the Sages in separating geula and kappara from forgiveness and pardon. In results they are very similar, but as we have seen earlier, the berakhot of the Shemona Esrei are divided not by the source of the solution but by the need of man from which the petition arises. The feeling of the need for pardon and forgiveness (unworthiness, fear of punishment) is totally different from the feeling of the need of salvation (hopelessness, deep affliction, and inner distress). The reason is that the purpose of prayer is not merely to reach a solution. For that, it would be sufficient to ask God to give us whatever He thinks we need. The purpose of tefila is to help us reach the recognition of what our needs are, and how they depend - in how many ways WE depend - on God. This feeling of dependence is the fulfillment of "avoda," of the service of God, as I pointed out in the introductory shiur. The need for redemption is a distinct need, enormously different from the need for forgiveness.